Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Birthdays and bike helmets

Today is my son’s 16th birthday. The homemade chocolate cake he requested is baking in the oven at this moment. As his mom, I can’t help but think of the day Sam was born. How another boy was unexpected but also wonderful news. And how I stared at his perfect, little face and fell in love for the third time. 
But Sam’s birthday also reminds me of something else. Seven years ago - and just a few days after Sam got a cool, full face bike helmet for his birthday - I rode down to the school to meet him. Ten minutes later, I hit the back of Sam’s bike and went over my handle bars. 
It took me six months to fully recover from the head injury. I wrote the essay below near the end of my recovery. I thought I’d share it today because it has to do with writing. But I hope you think of me the next time you decide it’s no big deal to let your child - or yourself - ride without a helmet. Not wearing a helmet was a few second decision that cost me many months and traumatized my family, especially Sam. There are so many things that we can't control in life. But what we put on our heads when we put pedals under our feet is something we *can* control. 

Keeping My Head Above Water

My head is bleeding and there’s a crowd. This much I know, though I don’t open my eyes. I also know my nine-year-old son is calmly telling someone my age. What I can’t figure out is why I’m lying, face down, in the street.  

At the hospital, I hear the paramedics tell the trauma team, “Thirty-six years old, thrown off a bike, no helmet.” As a nurse cuts off my clothes, I think how funny it will be to write about being caught wearing underwear with candy canes printed on them in September. As I wait for x-rays, I even start the essay in my head: My mother always told me to wear a clean pair of underwear in case of emergency; she never said anything about making sure they were seasonal, too! 

As it turns out, I don’t write about the underwear. In fact, I don’t write about much for quite some time. The concussion has some lingering affects. I struggle with fatigue, anxiety, a lack of concentration, and indecision. I spend most of my days feeling one step away from falling apart.               

“Poor timing.” That’s what my doctor says when the negotiations are done it’s time to either sign the book contract I’ve been offered or walk away. I can’t pick out a lousy birthday card for my mother, let alone make such an important decision. I call those I trust to keep me safe and we talk. Everyone tells me my health is more important than finishing the parenting guide I agreed to do months before the accident. It’s due at the end of the year.   

Walk away from the deal or push myself to complete the project - either decision will cost me dearly. 

I decide to walk away. I spend a weekend writing the letter to the publishing company. The thing is, I can’t bring myself to send it on Monday morning. It’s as if I’m in the water and everyone I love is trying to pull me onto the lifeboat. Only I’m thinking maybe I can keep treading just a little longer 

In the end, it is my dad who articulates what I already know in my heart, if not in my fuzzy head. I will second guess whatever decision I make (it is my nature), but letting go when I’m so close and after I’ve worked so hard, would surely cause me to sink deeper. For me, regret weighs more than failure.

So I email the publishers, tell them to send the contract and then I sit down to finish the book. Working again is not easy, but I keep my head above water. Writing is my lifeline. The one I throw myself. 


  1. As a helmet wearing bike commuter, thank you for sharing. I see so many people biking without helmets, even on roads filled with crazy Boston drivers. I wish more people would share their 'why you should always wear a helmet stories.'
    I will also be sure to always wear season appropriate underpants.

  2. "I will also be sure to always wear season appropriate underpants."

    HA! Yep. Me too these days.

  3. Thanks for sharing your essay, Car. There have been so many times I feel like my family tries to throw me a line and I insist on treading water. We writers are a stubborn bunch.


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